Places like the Cayman Islands, Switzerland, and the British Virgin Islands, have traditionally been where the wealthy send their money to avoid taxes, but this has been changing, perhaps most dramatically since 2007. In an op-ed in the Las Vegas Review Journal, after learning of his state’s ties to the Panama Papers on Monday, columnist John L. Smith wrote:
It shouldn’t be surprising if nefarious characters or the family members of corrupt politicians are found to have been hiding behind shell corporations crafted in Nevada. It’s what we do.
The secrecy provided under the state’s laws of incorporation is no accident. It’s a revenue source.
There’s nothing illegal about opening a corporation in Nevada. The state offers tax benefits. It also removes much of the liability from the owner in case of a lawsuit. States such as Wyoming, South Dakota, and Delaware offer much the same benefits of incorporation as Nevada. Indeed, a 2012 report in The New York Times noted that companies including American Airlines, Apple, Coca-Cola, Ford, JPMorgan Chase, and Walmart, were all incorporated in Delaware, largely because of the tax breaks the state offers.
Then, in 2007, came revelations that Americans had cheated the U.S. government out of billions of tax dollars by concealing them overseas—mostly in Switzerland, which led Congress to pass the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, a law that forced foreign banks operating in the U.S. to disclose their dealings with U.S. clients. That same year, 2007, the Nevada secretary of state’s website asked, “Why incorporate in Nevada?” The answer: “Minimal reporting and disclosing requirements. Stockholders are not public record.”
Nevada loosened its corporation laws in 1991, according to the Las Vegas Sun, hoping to make it a “Delaware of the West” and attract corporations with its low taxes and high secrecy. It made tens of millions of dollars. In 2006 alone, the Las Vegas Sun reported the state took in $87 million. One of the companies that made its way there was Rothschild Wealth Management & Trust, a firm with a storied history that was looking to move after the crackdown on Swiss banks. It chose Reno.
An article in Bloomberg Businessweek in January highlighted the ease and appeal of Nevada for a firm like Rothschild. In the article, a lawyer for Rothschild & Co. gave a presentation in San Francisco on how to avoid paying taxes. In it, he presented a hypothetical using a man named Wang, “who is from the People’s Republic of China, concerned that information about his wealth could be shared with Chinese authorities.”
Putting his assets into a Nevada LLC, in turn owned by a Nevada trust, would generate no U.S. tax returns, Penney wrote. Any forms the IRS would receive would result in “no meaningful information to exchange under” agreements between Hong Kong and the U.S., according to Penney’s PowerPoint presentation reviewed by Bloomberg.
It’s easy to create an LLC, hide money in it or even launder cash through it. A reporter with Fusion created her own LLC in Delaware, without any ID. Journalist Ken Silverstein did the same in Delaware, in 15 minutes over the phone for $292. He asked a friend to sign for the company, which he called Medellín Cartel Successor Entity, but neither he nor his friend appeared on the paperwork. And to make sure he was doubly protected, Silverstein flew to Las Vegas (though the trip was unnecessary) and set up another company, linked to his first LLC, but once-removed. At that point, he wrote, he “was positioned to go into business as a drug trafficker or arms trader or dictator’s bagman.”