Battle vs Wealthy Tax Dodgers Started By Roosevelt Continues
In the early 1900s, some of the wealthiest Americans claimed their fortunes would never last through the generations. A century of tax avoidance later, the dynasties are going strong, Patricia Callahan, James Bandler, Justin Elliott, Doris Burke, and Jeff Ernsthausen for ProPublica in the afternoon.
Photo Insert: While Amazon founder Jeff Bezos hasn't been as controversial as Tesla boss Elon Musk when it comes to taxes, the former is notorious for alleged "union busting."
President Franklin D. Roosevelt pounded on his desk and swore as he read a series of memos from his treasury secretary detailing the many ways the wealthy were avoiding taxes. Roosevelt asked his treasury secretary to publicly denounce the man as a “son of a bitch.”
Roosevelt, himself an heir, earlier had warned that “economic royalists” had “carved dynasties” off the backs of America’s working men and women. Now he saw a chance to address the unfairness in the nation’s tax system.
“The time has come when we have to fight back, and the only way to fight back is to begin to name names of these very wealthy individuals,” Roosevelt told the treasury secretary, who detailed the May 1937 scene in his diary.
That summer, the Treasury Department released one name after another at a packed meeting of a joint committee of the House and Senate. Americans saw how many of the country’s wealthiest families gamed the tax system with tricks that Roosevelt described as “so widespread and so amazing both in their boldness and their ingenuity that further action without delay seems imperative.”
Some businessmen stashed their profits in secret accounts in the Bahamas. Ethel Mars, the widow of candymaker Frank Mars, was singled out for equine tax avoidance. She deducted the losses from her Milky Way horse racing stables from the candy manufacturer’s corporate taxes.
The internal revenue commissioner testified that the late E.W. Scripps and his son, whose newspapers championed the working man, avoided an estimated half a million dollars in taxes (nearly $10 million in today’s dollars) by directing income to holding companies — derided by the commissioner as “merely ephemeral subdivisions of the personalities of the individual owner” — to take advantage of lower tax rates and deductions.