Malone gained double tax break in inversion
Credit: The Salt Lake Tribune
New York • Shifting the address of his Liberty Global Inc. from Colorado to London last year didn’t just put billionaire John C. Malone in a position to reduce his company’s tax bill.
He also took precautions to avoid the capital-gains hit that the so-called inversion would trigger for him and other investors. The day before the deal was announced, Malone – the company’s chairman and controlling shareholder – transferred $600 million of his shares into a tax-exempt charitable trust. He avoided paying taxes on his remaining stake, worth about $260 million, by exploiting IRS regulations meant to block a different loophole.
All told, Malone escaped about $200 million in personal taxes, and Liberty Global’s U.S. shareholders together likely saved more than a billion dollars, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
“He’s congenitally averse to paying taxes,” said Robert Willens, an independent tax accounting analyst in New York City.
As the Obama administration attempts to implement anti- inversion rules announced in September, Liberty’s strategies illustrate how billionaires and their companies find their way around tax regulations, and take advantage of unintended consequences.
Malone – whose net worth is $7.5 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index – has a history of creative tax- avoidance tactics. Over the years, many of the 73-year-old media billionaire’s biggest deals, such as buying the Atlanta Braves, have helped his companies to cut their tax bills.
Malone has at least four other charitable trusts, with more than $210 million in assets, IRS records show. Such trusts permit wealthy individuals to use the tax-exempt status of a charity to shelter income. In the past two years, he has also taken advantage of an Irish tax break to buy prime real estate in central Dublin.
Marcus Smith, a Liberty Global spokesman, declined to comment. He directed a request to interview Malone to Courtnee Ulrich, a spokeswoman at another of Malone’s companies, Liberty Media Corp. She declined to answer questions and said Malone would not comment.
A Connecticut native, Malone runs his growing media empire from his adopted state of Colorado. He recently surpassed Ted Turner — a predecessor as owner of the Braves — as the largest private landowner in the United States, according to The Land Report magazine. He owns about 2.2 million acres, including more than 5 percent of Maine’s total land mass.
Often spotted in public in a fleece wind breaker, he owns Mosquito Island, off Maine’s coastline, and at least two yachts — the 42-foot-long “Salty” and the 72-foot-long “Liberty,” records show.
Malone, a Yale graduate with a doctorate in operations research from Johns Hopkins University, began his career doing research for the old Bell Labs. He built his reputation turning a tiny Denver cable company called Tele-Communications Inc. into the country’s largest cable operator. He sold it to AT&T for $59 billion in 1999, a sale that included The Salt Lake Tribune, which he acquired earlier in a purchase from the McCarthy family and other shareholders.
Malone and his three main companies – Liberty Media, Liberty Global and Liberty Interactive Corp. – have held stakes in a virtual Who’s Who of big media, Internet and telecom businesses: News Corp., Viacom Inc., Time Warner Inc., QVC, Discovery Communications Inc., Court TV, DirecTV, Sirius XM Holdings Inc., Barnes & Noble Inc., and Expedia Inc.
Since 1995, Malone has served as an unpaid director of the Washington-based libertarian think tank Cato Institute, which advocates for lower taxes. In his business life, Malone has put that anti-tax philosophy to work.
In 2006, for example, Liberty Media cashed out its stake in Time Warner without triggering a capital gains tax. Along with the $1.4 billion it got in cash from shedding the shares, Liberty also received ownership of the Atlanta Braves baseball team from Time Warner. Although the Braves were en route to their first losing season in 16 years, the move was worth it. Acquiring the team via a tax planning technique known as a “cash rich splitoff” entirely eliminated the company’s tax bill on the deal.
The Braves, which Liberty Media still owns, broke ground in September on a stadium in the Atlanta suburbs, scheduled to be subsidized with more than $300 million of public funds.
Liberty Media later used a variation on the splitoff strategy when exiting its 19 percent stake in Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. Liberty Media swapped it for Murdoch’s stake in DirecTV, again completely avoiding a capital gains tax.
In 2009, Liberty Media invested $530 million in money- losing satellite radio company Sirius XM. The main attraction: Sirius’s $6 billion in tax losses, which could be used to offset taxes on Liberty’s future profits. Sirius’ stock, worth about a dime when Liberty made its investment, has risen to more than $3 since then.
The tale of Malone’s inversion tax coup goes back to 2004, when Liberty Media spun off its overseas cable business into a separate U.S. company, tax-free. That company, eventually renamed Liberty Global, now has about 25 million cable, broadband and telephone customers in 14 countries, including Germany, Hungary, Belgium and Ireland. It provides those services under various brand names, including Unitymedia, UPC and Telenet.