This story was originally published by ProPublica.
Donald Trump and other ultrarich Americans have earned billions, but they’ve also managed to repeatedly avoid paying any federal income tax by claiming huge losses on their businesses.
Here’s a tale of two Stephen Rosses.
Real life Stephen Ross, who founded Related Companies, a global firm best known for developing the Time Warner Center and Hudson Yards in Manhattan, was a massive winner between 2008 and 2017. He became the second-wealthiest real estate titan in America, almost doubling his net worth over those years, according to Forbes Magazine’s annual list, by adding $3 billion to his fortune. His assets included a penthouse apartment overlooking Central Park and the Miami Dolphins football team.
Then there’s the other Stephen Ross, the big loser. That’s the one depicted on his tax returns. Though the developer brought in some $1.5 billion in income from 2008 to 2017, he reported even more — nearly $2 billion — in losses. And because he reported negative income, he didn’t pay a nickel in federal income taxes over those 10 years.
What enables this dual identity? The upside-down tax world of the ultrawealthy.
ProPublica’s analysis of more than 15 years of secret tax data for thousands of the wealthiest Americans shows that Ross is one of a special breed.
He is among a subset of the ultrarich who take advantage of owning businesses that generate enormous tax deductions that then flow through to their personal tax returns. Many of them are in commercial real estate or oil and gas, industries that have been granted unusual advantages in the American tax code, which allow the ultrawealthy to take tax losses even on profitable enterprises. Manhattan apartment towers that are soaring in value can be turned into sinkholes for tax purposes. A massively profitable natural gas pipeline company can churn out Texas-sized write-offs for its billionaire owner.
Take Silicon Valley real estate mogul Jay Paul, who hauled in $354 million between 2007 and 2018. According to Forbes, he vaulted into the ranks of the multibillionaires in those years. Yet Paul paid taxes in only one of those years, thanks to losses of over $700 million.
Then there’s Texas wildcatter
Trevor Rees-Jones, who built Chief Oil & Gas into a major natural gas producer over the past two decades. The multibillionaire reported a total of $1.4 billion in income from 2013 to 2018, but offset that with even greater losses. He paid no federal income taxes in four of those six years.
None of the people mentioned in this article would discuss their taxes or tax-avoidance techniques with ProPublica.
A spokesperson for Ross declined to accept questions. In a statement, he said, “Stephen Ross has always followed the tax law. His returns — which were illegally obtained and descriptions of which were released by ProPublica — are reflective of and in accordance with federal tax policy. It should terrify every American that their information is not safe with the government and that media will act illegally in disseminating it. We will have no further correspondence with you as we believe this is an illegal act.” (As ProPublica has explained,
the organization believes its actions are legal and protected by the Constitution.)
A spokesman for Rees-Jones declined to comment. Paul did not respond to repeated requests for comment.