First it was Mitt Romney, and now two more aspiring public servants are in the spotlight for questionable tax maneuvers – Penny Pritzker, President Obama’s Commerce Secretary Nominee, and Massachusetts Republican Senate candidate, Gabriel Gomez. The complex tax avoidance strategies exercised by both these two candidates for federal office demonstrate the stunning extent to which wealthy individuals of all stripes can play by a different set of tax rules than everyone else.
Avoiding Every Last Penny of Taxes
While many wealthy families go to great lengths to avoid taxes, the Pritzker family (most famous for it’s ownership of the Hyatt hotel chain) is unique in its role as “pioneers” in the use of offshore tax shelters. Many of its existing offshore trusts were set up as long as five decades ago, and some have allowed the family to continue benefitting from tax loopholes that have long since been closed.
As the graphic below from a 2003 Forbes story details, one of the primary ways the Pritzker family uses offshore trusts to avoid taxes is by having income from their businesses funneled into offshore trusts. Those trusts then pay debt service to a bank, owned by the family trust, that loans that money right back to the business. The upshot is that all the taxable profits disappear and the family wealth accumulates unabated. A more recent Forbes article looking at the Pritzker family fortune notes that these trusts were not at the margin but rather “played a substantial role in the growth of the Pritzker fortune.” The same article notes that this fortune makes up the vast majority of Pritzker’s $1.85 billion empire and has allowed 10 members of the Pritzker family to earn a spot on the list of Forbes 400 richest people in America.
When the New York Times asked Penny Pritzker for her thoughts on the ethical implications of her family’s use of offshore trusts, she remarked that the trust was set up when she was only a child, after all, and that she does not control how the offshore trusts are administered. Her continued vagueness on these issues makes it likely that she will face more questions about her views of offshore tax avoidance more generally next week when she goes before the Senate for her confirmation hearing.
While Pritzker’s personal involvement with her family’s most infamous tax avoidance legacy is unclear, it is clear that she has actively used tax avoidance strategies in her own professional and private life. For example, a family member in this Bloomberg News profile from 2008 recounts one of her very first assignments working for Hyatt, which was to set up a like-kind property exchange to help avoid taxes on a property owned by Hyatt.
It turned out Penny was a natural at this particular tax avoidance scheme, in which a company takes deductions for the purported depreciation of their property and then sells the property at an appreciated price, but avoids paying capital gains tax by swapping the property for another like-kind property. (Originally created for use by farmers trading acreage, this tax break is a perfect example of a loophole in the tax code that is abused by companies and should be eliminated (PDF).)
In her personal finances, Penny Pritzker has run into criticism for making 10 appeals to lower the property tax assessment for her mansion in Chicago’s Lincoln Park. Like many wealthy taxpayers, Pritzker is able to retain lawyers who, through repeated appeals, have been able to save her an estimated $175,905 (PDF), even though their appeals have only succeeded half the time.
Gabriel Gomez and the Façade of Charitable Donations
While not on the same scale, according to the Boston Globe, U.S. Senate candidate Gabriel Gomez claimed a $281,500 income tax deduction in 2005 for “pledging not to make any visible changes to the façade of his 112-year-old Cohasset home” because the value of such an agreement is considered a charitable deduction by federal law. The only problem is that local laws already prohibit he and his wife from making any changes to the exterior of their home, meaning that his “agreement” to leave the façade alone is more like complying with local laws rather than a choice, so it may not have an actual “value” that is deductible.
In fact, just five weeks after Gomez claimed this deduction, the IRS listed the abuse of historic façade easements as one of its “Dirty Dozen” tax scams. Moreover, the organization with which Gomez made the agreement, the Trust for Architectural Easements, has been criticized by the IRS, Department of Justice, and Congress for encouraging tax avoidance. Altogether the IRS estimates that the Trust cost American taxpayers $250 million in lost revenue.
Fortunately for Gomez, the IRS did not challenge his use of this deduction, as it has with hundreds of others. If they had done so, they likely would have rejected the deduction and Gomez would have had to pay thousands in back taxes and an additional penalty. For his part, Gomez’s lawyer argues that the restrictiveness of the agreement goes further than local zoning laws, but it appears unlikely that the additional restrictions are so great as to justify such a substantial deduction.