Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Did Romney enable a company's abusive tax shelter?

By Peter C. Canellos and Edward D. Kleinbard, Special to CNN
August 9, 2012 -- Updated 2224 GMT (0624 HKT)
When Mitt Romney was audit chair at Marriott International, the company engaged in a series of abusive tax shelter activities.
When Mitt Romney was audit chair at Marriott International, the company engaged in a series of abusive tax shelter activities.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • When Mitt Romney was audit chair at Marriott, company engaged in abusive tax shelter
  • Peter Canellos, Edward Kleinbard: Marriott tie shows Romney's professional ethics
  • They say Romney displays a consistent highly aggressive attitude towards tax obligations
  • Canellos, Kleinbard: Romney was willing to bend the rules to seek an unfair tax advantage

Editor's note: Peter C. Canellos, a lawyer, is former chair of the New York State Bar Association Tax Section. Edward D. Kleinbard is a professor at Gould School of Law at the University of Southern California. He is the former chief of staff of Congress's Joint Committee on Taxation.

(CNN) -- Mitt Romney's refusal to release tax returns in the critical years of his income accumulation has done little to dispel the legitimate concern that arises from hints buried in his scant disclosure to date: Did he augment his wealth through highly aggressive tax stratagems of questionable validity?

Opinion: Why won't Romney release more tax returns?

One relevant line of inquiry, largely ignored so far, is to examine what exists in the public record regarding his attitude toward tax compliance and tax avoidance. While this examination is hampered because his dealings through his private equity company, Bain Capital, are kept shrouded, there are other indicators.

A key troubling public manifestation of Romney's apparent insensitivity to tax obligations is his role in Marriott International's abusive tax shelter activity, as previously reported by Jesse Drucker in Bloomberg.

Edward D. Kleinbard
Edward D. Kleinbard

Romney has had a close, long-standing, personal and business connection with Marriott International and its founders. He served as a member of the Marriott board of directors for many years. From 1993 to 1998, Romney was the head of the audit committee of the Marriott board.

During that period, Marriott engaged in a series of complex and high-profile maneuvers, including "Son of Boss," a notoriously abusive prepackaged tax shelter that investment banks and accounting firms marketed to corporations such as Marriott. In this respect, Marriott was in the vanguard of a then-emerging corporate tax shelter bubble that substantially undermined the entire corporate tax system.

Son of Boss and its related shelters represented perhaps the largest tax avoidance scheme in history, costing the U.S. many billions in lost corporate tax revenues. In response, the government initiated legal challenges that resulted in complete disallowance of the losses claimed by Marriott and other corporations.

In addition, the Son of Boss transaction was listed by the Internal Revenue Service as an abusive transaction, requiring specific disclosure and subject to heavy penalties. Statutory penalties were also made more stringent to deter future tax shelter activity. Finally, the government brought successful criminal prosecutions against a number of individuals involved in Son of Boss and related transactions not associated with Marriott, including principals at major law and accounting firms.

In his key role as chairman of the Marriott board's audit committee, Romney approved the firm's reporting of fictional tax losses exceeding $70 million generated by its Son of Boss transaction. His endorsement of this stratagem provides insight into Romney's professional ethics and attitude toward tax compliance obligations.

Like other prepackaged corporate tax shelters of that era, Marriott's Son of Boss transaction was an entirely artificial transaction, bearing no relationship to its business. Its sole purpose was to create a gigantic tax loss out of thin air without any economic risk, cost or loss -- other than the fee Marriott paid the promoter.

The Son of Boss transaction was vulnerable to attack on at least two grounds.

First, the transaction's promoters and consumers relied on a strained technical statutory analysis. Second, the Son of Boss deal violated the fundamental tax principle that the tax law ignores transactions unless they have a motivating business purpose and a substantial nontax economic effect.

In the Marriott case, the IRS raised both arguments and won on the first interpretive issue.

The Court of Claims (affirmed by the Court of Appeals) rejected Marriott's technical analysis, finding no reliable argument or authority to support it. The court therefore did not need to reach the issue of business purpose and economic substance. In subsequent decisions, involving similar transactions but other parties, the courts have sustained the second line of attack as well, finding the claimed losses to be fictitious.

The complete judicial rejection of the Son of Boss tax scheme was entirely predictable. In mid-1994, for example, roughly contemporaneously with Marriott's execution of its Son of Boss trade and well before Marriott filed its return claiming the artificial loss, the highly respected Tax Section of the New York Bar Association filed a public comment with the U.S. Treasury and IRS urging rejection of the technical claims made by promoters of such schemes.

In his key position as head of the board's audit committee, Romney was required under the securities laws and his fiduciary duties to review the transaction. In fact, it has been publicly reported that Romney was the Marriott Board member most acquainted with the transaction and to whom the other board members turned for advice. This makes sense because aggressive tax-driven financial engineering was a large part of what Romney (and Bain) did for a living. For these reasons, it is fair to hold him accountable for Marriott's spurious tax reporting.

Romney's campaign staff has attempted to deflect responsibility, arguing that he relied on Marriott's tax department and advisers.

This claim is disingenuous. In a transaction of this magnitude, sensitivity and questionableness, the prudent step would be to secure advice to the audit committee and the board from experienced and independent tax counsel, who would certainly have cautioned that the Marriott position was risky and not supported by precedent or proper statutory interpretation.

Moreover, on the key issue of the business purpose and economic substance, Romney was, or should have been, aware of the facts that the transaction had its genesis solely in tax avoidance and was a "marketed" tax shelter.

He had an insider's perspective on the motivation and lack of substance in the transaction, as well as the financial sophistication to understand the tax avoidance involved. Romney failed in his duties to Marriott and its shareholders and acted to undermine the fairness of the tax system.

No one could accuse Romney of lacking the intelligence and analytical skills to have dealt with this transaction appropriately. Indeed, his strengths in this regard were the reason the other board members relied on him.

What emerges from this window into corporate tax compliance behavior is the picture of an executive who was willing to go to the edge, if not beyond, to bend the rules to seek an unfair advantage, and then hide behind the advice of so-called experts to deflect criticism when a scheme backfires.

Reid puts GOP in a bind over Romney's taxes

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Peter C. Canellos and Edward D. Kleinbard.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1554 GMT (2354 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT