I can’t wait until the first state lawmaker stands up at next year’s budget session and proclaims that Wyoming can’t possibly tax the income of wealthy individuals and corporations.

Opinion

That person should be laughed out of the Capitol, but won’t be. You can bank on it. In fact, so many millionaires and billionaires have banked on it that Wyoming has become one of the biggest tax havens in the world, and a favorite place for questionable actors to warehouse dirty money.

The Washington Post revealed last week that one of the hundreds of people who park their fortunes in secretive private trusts in Wyoming is a billionaire Russian oligarch who is being investigated for alleged mob ties.

Then there’s the multi-millionaire matriarch of an Argentinian family, whose beverage company is the subject of two probes in that country for allegedly laundering money and polluting land and waterways.

Another beneficiary of Wyoming’s giveaway to the world’s wealthy exposed by The Post is the family of the late estate manager to a slain Dominican Republic dictator, whose regime ordered the murder of tens of thousands of Haitians. The manager died of COVID-19 last year, but don’t worry about his family; thanks to the Equality State’s unique trust laws, his relatives can avoid paying transfer taxes for up to 1,000 years.

The Post’s reporting about a dozen international clients who registered Wyoming trusts is based on the “Pandora Papers,” a trove of nearly 12 million records obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

The newspaper’s sleuths looked at the previously unexplored dark side of who benefits from the financial secrecy that’s baked into Wyoming’s trust laws. I believe their reporting has brought to light the state’s top public policy story in 2021, and not just because of the shady foreign characters the investigation unearthed.

It is a searing indictment of the state’s leadership for spending an enormous amount of time and resources on an economic development venture that is making the ultra-rich even wealthier but doing nothing to benefit the state or its tax-paying residents.

Wyoming’s drive to become the most business-friendly state in the nation has never been a secret. Many of its Republican leaders brag about how hard they’ve worked to accomplish that goal since 1977, when the Legislature authorized the nation’s first limited liability companies.

But the creation of LLCs was only a launching pad for more than 100 changes to the state’s trust laws that legislators would make over the next 34 years. A 2011 Wyoming Law Review article by Christopher Reimer stated that “individuals who once relied on foreign jurisdictions should consider taking advantage of Wyoming’s superior [trust] laws.”

Boy, did they ever. A 2020 Hebrew University of Jerusalem study found Wyoming to be one of the 10 least restrictive, most customer-friendly trust jurisdictions in the world. 

The type of trust the state promotes even has a Wyoming-flavored name: the “Cowboy Cocktail.”

What are the ingredients? Most of the private trusts companies established in Wyoming are unregulated, so there is no state scrutiny of the assets. The trusts are legal agreements that must be managed by an entity in Wyoming, usually a law firm or estate planner, but the identity of the owners is shielded. 

For an extra layer of secrecy, a second company can be created inside the trusts — a shell within a shell — to hold the assets. The Legislature has passed even more trust-industry-friendly laws in the past decade.

What’s the net effect of this legal maneuvering? In a video interview by Cheddar News, University of Richmond law professor Allison Tait explained that “at the end of the day, you’re taking money out of the tax base.”

Wyoming is in a warped competition for the secretive private trusts with states like South Dakota, Alaska, Nevada and Delaware. Tait said they are all “in a race to the bottom.

“Some economists have done studies speculating on how much money is going untaxed and what is the lost revenue, and it’s enormous,” Tait said. “It could pay for [the federal food stamp] program three times over in a year. You’re taking money away from things like roads and schools.”

Wyoming is struggling to fund the state government with shrinking tax revenues from the minerals industry. GOP lawmakers continually try to cut public schools and social services budgets, while flatly refusing to raise any taxes or pass an individual or corporate income tax, or even a gross receipts tax. The state’s sales tax and property taxes are among the lowest in the nation. Wyoming also has no estate or inheritance tax.

So, I think it’s more than fair for residents to ask legislators one burning question: Where are all the jobs and industries you promised would come from helping the super-wealthy hide their money? That’s how you sold this entire bill of goods to the public.

Ironically, it’s practically the only form of economic diversification away from minerals that the Legislature has ever wholeheartedly embraced. But it’s been a colossal flop, since none of the supposed economic benefits have materialized.

“If you come in as a trust company or a banker, you don’t pay your way,” Michael Von Flatern, a Republican former state senator from Gillette, told The Post. “We didn’t gain anything.”

I don’t expect the Legislature to even admit that it’s made a mistake by working feverishly to become the “onshore offshore” alternative to the Caymans at the expense of Wyoming’s lower-and-middle-income taxpayers. If our leaders devoted a fraction of their time to closing the huge income inequality rate — say, at a special session to revamp the state’s tax structure — we might be able to stop draconian budget cuts.

But no, the handwriting is on the wall, at least for the next few years — Wyoming will balance its books by spending federal COVID-19 relief funds and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act monies. Lawmakers or citizens who want to see any other outcome can go to the back of the line.

At least some members of Congress want to stop the drain on federal and state tax revenues made possible by concoctions like the Cowboy Cocktail. 

U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-New Jersey), chairman of the Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee, held a hearing about the Pandora Papers documents earlier this month, when South Dakota’s lax trust laws were in the headlines. 

“[The reporting] vividly demonstrates how the ultra-wealthy and powerful live under a different set of rules than everyone else,” Pascrell said at the hearing. “They are aided and abetted by a complex system of financial secrecy and accommodating laws that wealthy nations, including our own, created.”

Republican South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem has stonewalled Pascrell’s attempts to get her to testify before the panel. Last Thursday, after The Post published its findings about Wyoming’s Cowboy Cocktail, the congressman sent a list of questions to Gov. Mark Gordon.

“Our witnesses have testified … that this secrecy enables illicit activities like money laundering and tax evasion,” Pascrell wrote. “At the very least, it appears to provide absolute asset protection for the wealthy against creditors, including for child and spousal support claims. How do you defend the Wyoming trust regime against these assertions?”

If I was the governor, I’d simply say, “I can’t,” and throw myself and legislators to the mercy of the committee. But I expect Gordon to do what comes naturally when dealing with D.C. power brokers, especially when they’re Democrats, and somehow blame the feds for our folly. 

In Wyoming, that’s the politically correct way to do business.

Kerry Drake

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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  1. One patch that the Wyoming legislators have forgotten to patch.The limits of liability in Texas are set at $10,000 dollars. My son was hit by a semi that ran a stop sign north of Cheyenne a couple of years ago. Broken neck, thoracic injury. Thankfully it didn’t happen in Texas, 10K is all he would have gotten.

  2. The liberal tax and spend mentality of the comments on this page are typical of the uniformed, shoot from the hip, the wealthy person must have stolen their wealth so we should tax them into oblivion mentality. In typical Drake fashion, it’s half the story Maybe some of you should take a serious look at the tax and spend mentality of those in other states – the People’s Republic of California comes to mind along with NY, Conn, NJ, etc – and see how that has worked out for them. Their fiscal situation is no better than ours. There is one thing Government is good at – spending money – no matter how little or how much they have.

    Taxing the wealthy is not going to solve the fiscal issues in this state. Only serious tax reform where we all chip in a little more – and the state continues to maintain fiscal restraint – will solve the fiscal issues.

    Maybe WyoFile/Drake could spend a little time and effort in looking at the entrepreneurs that built successful businesses in this state, that support their communities with little to no fan fare. Or maybe the small business owners that work 24/7/365 to build something, provide jobs and support their communities. Or how more taxes and regulations would impact their businesses and employees.

    If you want a stronger local economy, start supporting our business community vs tacking on more taxes/fee/regulations.

    1. Well said. This is simply a Democrat mascot repeating the approved narrative by the Democrat controlled media. They don’t care about anything but power and money. They want to divide and destroy the middle class for daring to reject them. If their policies were actually popular, people wouldn’t be fleeing the blue states for red ones.

  3. Censoring comments critical of Daffy’s dishonest take again. Sigh.
    Democrats are the party of the rich.
    They will never change.
    Accuse the other side of what you do. Rules for Radicals is their Bible.

    1. Correction. I have seen some solid comments here this morning and must complement Wyofile on allowing readers to say things that other sites are banning without cause. Credit where credit is due. Thank You, Wyofile.

  4. Let’s start with audits of every lawyer, estate planner, and banker involved in this criminal conspiracy. Crickets. End of story.

  5. From ICIJ: “Which US states have the most trusts in the Pandora Papers? South Dakota, Florida, Delaware, Texas, and Nevada.” Wyoming didn’t even make the list. And all of these states still pale in comparison to traditional offshore havens such as the Caymans, British Virgin Islands. Out of “more than 11.9 million records obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists” how many international trusts were identified by ICIJ in Wyoming? “Approximately a dozen”.

    “The U.S. has refused to join a 2014 agreement supported by more than 100 jurisdictions, including the Cayman Islands and Luxembourg, that would require American financial institutions to share information they have about foreigners’ assets.” (Also from ICIJ, not mentioned in this opinion piece).

    But it’s a convenient vehicle to attack the Wyoming legislature and Governor for Wyoming’s failed economy, rather than the real cause: the Democrat war on fossil fuels and US energy independence, and the failed national pandemic policies.

    1. Lin- it is only a half truth you espouse that Wyoming was not on the list naming the states with the most egregious trust laws. That’s true as far as it goes, but the bigger half of the truth is two fold. The WaPo-ICIJ team originally looking into the sequestered wealth didn’t find Wyoming because they didn’t actual;ly look . And if they had, Wyoming have the most opaque of all the trust walls would not have been easilu detectable. We’ve been hiding wealth here since the 70’s… the whole point is to keep the particulars well hidden. Wyoming did it better by not doing it at all… keep everything off the books and out of the Courthouses.
      I can tell you with certainty there are more than a dozen internationally instigated trusts gestated here in my own Park County, western half, alone. After the original Pandora Papers came out last summer I was perplexed why WaPo / ICIJ had not mentioned Wyoming , so I did my own broadbrush research on the topic. I found dozens and dozens of new trusts established in Park County, most in the last few years. Having grown up ghere I knew who used to own those properties and ranches, but the names on the trust dox these days are not from here. It gets worse: while a few are overtly foreign in source, by far most of the foreign trust mavens are using their preexisting American shells and front companies to hide the newer trusts…shells within shells . So they resemble domestic trusts.
      But the real assets being hidden here isn’t from overseas at all… it is sourced other Americans , mainly from the high tax states / Blue States. I’d say offhand 10-to-one. Wyoming doesn’t care who the trustee is or where they actually reside. Purposely blind about it. But a great many are from Texas, Connecticut, Florida , Illinois, New York yada yada. Financial expatriates of our own kind and nationality.

      So I inquired of the WaPo team why and how they missed out on Wyoming. Answer: invisibility cloak in use. So they revisted and looked harder and deeper , and Lo! they found plenty once the veils were lifted . The supplement to the Pandora Papers that came out recently definitely went for Wyoming’s jugular. And here we are.

      What I find cynically amusing is all the mundane mediorcre lawyers in my town of Cody – and there are many – whose dim bulbs suddenly brightened a few watts and they started repping themselves as Trust Agents. It’s almost endemic around here now. Why chase amublances and cash in on medcal liabilty lawsuits when you can frame up a trust and hide …everything. Business is booming in the briefcase and clip-on tie crowd.
      A year ago we didn’t know what we didn’t know. But now we sorta do know. Last week’s warm fuzzy conservative Cody Enterprise had it front page above the fold : We have Ukrainians laundering money in Cody. At least $ 1 billion from one oligarch flushed out by way of a federal money laundering lawsuit. Stay tuned… we are about to have a Trust Rush in Wyoming not emanating from Teton County which is pretty much exhausted all it fungible financial foofawraw. It’s exponential. All of Wyoming’s 23 counties can now be like Teton County’s … if Jackson Hole is the new Georgetown , we are now the Cayman Islands of the Sagebrush Sea

  6. Excellent article. Spot on. I also noticed that Gordon et al. are hypocrites for cutting the social services budget, refusing to raise taxes on some entities already taxed too low or not taxed at all, and welcoming national taxpayers(borrowed) money that our illustrious D. C. legislators voted against. Very patriotic, Governor.

  7. So when are we going to see this in the Casper Star or maybe at least on NPR. Get the word out so even our famously see no evil Governor will have to address it.

  8. As usual Kerry makes a splendid argument. The fact that Wyoming is hiding all this wealth for criminals is injustice. We’ll be stuck with this until the good ole “boys” are voted out. What a bunch of useless, except for the rich, legislators. We just manage to vote in the same exact set of “boys” every year, because of voter apathy in the state. Liz Cheney gets more press for voting to impeach (rightly) tRump than the fact that they hide this from us. They still can’t manage to pass Medicare for people who live here who have no health insurance. Wyoming needs a change for the good of the citizen, not the rich from foreign countries.

    1. well said Sue…and sadly true.
      seems Wyoming will never get weaned from federal subsidies.
      nor will our current legislators see fit to tax these glutenous corporations properly.
      things can change-it starts with the ballot.

  9. Was thinking of this story when I saw Senator Lummis’ Christmas Eve FaceBook post. Our infrastructure, education and social services funding are all going down the drain, but at least we provide a nice tax shelter for the uber-rich (which does not help raising a family or opening a small business in WY).

    “Senator Cynthia Lummis
    December 24 at 8:30 AM ·
    For the 10th year in a row, Wyoming has ranked #1 in the country for our business tax climate. We are the best place to raise a family and open a business. Thanks Tax Foundation.”

  10. It’s not voters who can force the legislature to start taxing the uber-wealthy, it’s the minerals industry. They’ve been carrying us all on their backs – me included since like everyone else I pay zero state income tax – for far too long. The minerals industry should be outraged that they’re now carrying Russian oligarchs and Dominican Republic mass murderers as well. I have a lot of friends in minerals who work hard every day to earn a living and make our state a better place. It’s time that their tax burden is lowered and that the rest of us (including trusts) pay for our Cowboy Cocktails.

  11. If you’re rich in Wyoming or obviously just rich no matter what crimes you committed elsewhere in the world, the Wyoming Legislature is here to help you.

    If you’re not rich, well, take care of your own damn self.

  12. Over $ 100 billion inw ealth and assets hidden behind the walls of Wyoming trust laws.

    Where’s the ” Trickle Down” gentle rain of moola and flowering money blossoms that Ronald Reagan and every Republican since promised us ? The promised “rising tide that raises all boats” turned out to be the floods from the deluge that drowned the middle and low income residents of Wyoming like Louisiana after a hurricane. There was no trickle down . The commonwealth of the Wyoming population – being made up mostly of middle class service sector , blue collar jobbers, some public sector government mules, and one pickup truck tradesmen – sees little to no benefit from the phantom billion$ sequestered here. None.

    We were lied to all along. Who will confess to it ? Great essay , Kerry, and your titanium broadhead arrows are quite sharp…

  13. We need some new smart, innovative blood in our legislature!!!! Some new people Republican or not that realize their constituents are footing the bill for the wealthy and being denied basic services because that’s the way it has always been, why change our broken tax system in Wyoming? Why change anything? Very discouraging for the youth of Wyoming, that’s why they are leaving!!!!! We are just an old state
    With an Old bunch of crummy
    Legislators that Can’t bare change!!!! Even if it’s for the good of all the people red or blue.

  14. You mean the Wyoming legislature did not intend the state to become a cesspool of tax evasion and money-laundering?