This story was originally published by ProPublica.
IRS records reveal how Gov. Jim Justice, Gov. Jared Polis, former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and other wealthy political figures slashed their taxes using strategies unavailable to most of their constituents.
As a member of Congress, Jared Polis was one of the loudest Democrats demanding President Donald Trump release his tax returns.
At a rally in Denver in 2017, he warned the crowd that Trump “might have something to hide.” That same year, on the floor of the House, he introduced a resolution to force the president to release the records, calling them an “important baseline disclosure.”
But during Polis’ successful run for governor of Colorado in 2018, his calls for transparency faded. The dot-com tycoon turned investor broke with recent precedent and refused to disclose his returns, blaming his Republican opponent, who wasn’t disclosing his.
Polis may have had other reasons for denying requests to release the records.
Despite a net worth estimated to be in the hundreds of millions, Polis paid nothing in federal income taxes in 2013, 2014 and 2015. From 2010 to 2018, his overall rate was just 8.2% — less than half of the 19% paid by a worker making $45,000 in 2018.
The revelations about Polis are contained in a trove of tax information obtained by ProPublica covering thousands of the nation’s wealthiest people.
The Colorado governor is one of several ultrarich politicians who, the data shows, have paid little or no federal income taxes in multiple years, exploited loopholes to dodge estate taxes or used their public offices to fight reforms that would increase their tax bills.
The records show that rich Democrats and Republicans alike have slashed their taxes using strategies unavailable to most of their constituents. Among them are governors, members of Congress and a cabinet secretary.
Richard Painter, the chief White House ethics lawyer during the George W. Bush administration, said the tax avoidance of these top politicians is “very, very worrisome” since both parties “spend like crazy” and depend on taxes to fund their priorities, from the military to Medicare to Social Security.
“They have the power to decide how much the rest of us pay and the power to spend the money, and then they’re not paying their fair share?” Painter said.
“That should be troubling to voters, both conservative and liberal. It should be troubling for everyone.”
West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice
, for example, is a Republican coal magnate who has made the Forbes list of wealthiest Americans. Yet he’s paid very little or no federal income taxes for almost every year since 2000.
California Rep. Darrell Issa
, one of the richest people in Congress, was one of the few Republicans to break with his party during the 2017 tax overhaul to fight for a deduction that — unbeknownst to the public — helped him avoid millions in taxes.
And the tax records of Republican Sen. Rick Scott
of Florida and Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, showed that both employed a loophole, which was accidentally created by Congress, to escape estate and gift taxes.
As ProPublica has revealed in a series of articles this year
, these tactics, if sometimes aggressive, are completely legal. And they’re not universal among wealthy politicians. ProPublica reviewed tax data for a couple dozen wealthy current and former government officials. Their data shows that many of them paid relatively high tax rates while employing more modest use of the fairly standard deductions of the rich.
The politicians who paid little or exploited loopholes either defended their practices as completely proper or declined to comment.
“The Governor has paid every cent of taxes he owes, he has championed tax reform and tax fairness to fix this broken system for everybody, to report otherwise would be inaccurate,” Polis’ spokesperson wrote in an email
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