Tech’s Tax Paradise

Uber, Apple, and Facebook are still evading U.S. taxes on an epic scale, according to a trove of leaked financial documents called the Paradise Papers.

(Courtesy Photo)

A recent hack of 13.4 million confidential banking documents shows that rampant corporate tax evasion hits close to home here in the Bay Area. The documents, known as the Paradise Papers, reveal how the local tech industry’s use of offshore tax shelters has only become more creative in the wake of recent government crackdowns.

Among other things, the Paradise Papers have exposed underhanded offshore tax maneuvers by more than 120 politicians worldwide, including President Donald Trump’s billionaire Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, and even the Queen of England. But they also show similar schemes are used by Uber, Apple, and Facebook.

It was German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung which first obtained the documents, that detail the secret dealings of Appleby, an offshore law firm. The documents are slowly being leaked by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, and a fresh batch of data was released on Friday.

SF Weekly sifted through it only to find the Bay Area’s biggest tech companies, like Apple, Facebook, and Uber, have all used Appleby to secretly funnel hundreds of billions in assets to offshore tax havens.

Islands with no-tax or low-tax policies are a common theme here. According to the documents, Apple keeps its most valuable patents and trademarks registered on a tiny island off the coast of France. Much of Facebook’s highly profitable user database is not registered to its Menlo Park offices, but in the Cayman Islands. The patent for Uber’s rideshare app is not registered to Uber’s San Francisco headquarters, but instead in Bermuda.

Ask any San Franciscan where Uber’s main offices are located, and they’ll tell you 555 Market St. Yet much of Uber’s intellectual property is registered to “Uber Investment Management, Inc.,” incorporated in 2013, with its headquarters curiously located in the Bahamas. According to Bloomberg, that leaves less than 2 percent of Uber’s net revenue taxable in the U.S.

But Uber is nowhere near the biggest Bay Area tech tax dodger.

Overseas bank accounts for the Bay Area’s large tech companies are not a new phenomenon. Cupertino-based Apple came under fire in May 2013 for offshoring profits in fake Irish headquarters forced CEO Tim Cook to testify before an angry congressional panel. “We do not depend on tax gimmicks,” Cook said at the time, before those Irish schemes were shut down. “We do not stash money on some Caribbean island.”

But a Caribbean island is exactly where Apple inquired about stashing its profits just 10 months later when the Irish loophole was closed. Emails included in the Paradise Papers show that Apple’s law firm Baker McKenzie considered offshore headquarters they could use “without being subject to taxation” in the Cayman Islands, the British Virgin Islands, and Bermuda.

The iPhone manufacturer eventually settled on a small isle in the English Channel, the “Crown dependemcy” of Jersey. To this day, Apple still holds around $252 billion in profits on the island, a tiny tax haven that otherwise has no technical or strategic role for Apple.

Since the 2016 election meddling, we have learned that Facebook and Twitter’s core businesses are certainly of interest to Russia. That’s why it’s significant that a Kremlin-owned bank made substantial — and secret — investments in those social media platforms.

A state-owned Russian entity called VTB Bank made a $191 million investment in Twitter in 2011, shadowing the investment through an international firm called DST Global. That firm also partnered with an offshore entity funded by the Kremlin to make a $200 million investment in Facebook in 2009, back when Facebook was still the No. 2 social network, behind MySpace.

All those investments were sold off when Facebook and Twitter made their IPOs and became public companies.

There is no evidence that the Kremlin was given any business influence at Twitter or Facebook for making these investments. But it certainly deserves scrutiny, since Russia is suspected of using these platforms to sway the 2016 U.S. elections, and the transactions were not entirely public.

But the Bay Area tax and investment chicanery is not limited to big tech companies. The Paradise Papers show that Stanford University, UC Berkeley, and the University of San Francisco all maintain offshore firms to handle investments that are completely unrelated to their educational missions.

These universities have “endowments,” large donations generally from big-bucks alumni that are invested and intended to create returns to supposedly enroll more students and fund the universities’ hospitals. Because of their charitable nature, endowments are only taxed when they’re invested in private equity or hedge funds.

Unless those endowments are invested in funds headquartered in no-tax locations like Bermuda and the Cayman Islands.

The Bay Area college most egregiously exploiting this loophole is Stanford University, the tech industry’s favorite talent incubator and alma mater to Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer, and Trump supporter Peter Thiel.

Stanford and its Board of Trustees hold four offshore investments in Bermuda and the Cayman Islands. These investments have helped increase the size of Stanford’s endowment to $22.4 billion, which Stanford claims is for the “fulfillment of the university’s mission of teaching, learning and research.”

Yet despite a tenfold increase to the size of Stanford’s endowment since 1987, the school still admits virtually the exact same number of students as it did 30 years ago.

UC Berkeley rivals Stanford with two Bermuda-based tax haven investments registered to the Regents of the University of California. The University of San Francisco also holds shares in a tax-free Cayman Islands fund.

Like the recent sexual assault scandals that brought down some of our favorite Hollywood stars, the Paradise Papers have also exposed shady practices among some of our favorite pop culture icons. Madonna, Shakira, and Justin Timberlake have registered the rights to their biggest hit songs, or hold other investments, in tax-free offshore accounts in the Caribbean Islands.

All of the investments and maneuvers described above are technically legal. But what raises eyebrows is how they were kept secret and exposed only when Appleby’s internal documents were hacked and leaked.

If there’s nothing to hide, why were these documents hidden from public view? Per usual, Sen. Bernie Sanders has some opinions.

“The essence of oligarchy is that the billionaire class is never satisfied with what they have,” Sanders said on Twitter earlier this month. “They want more, no matter what impact their efforts have on working people.”

Unfortunately for working people in the Bay Area, that means a higher tax burden while our most profitable tech companies continue to “disrupt” the U.S. tax code.

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