How 'insanely corrupt' South Dakota became a magnet for the wealth-hoarding megarich

How 'insanely corrupt' South Dakota became a magnet for the wealth-hoarding megarich
Kristi Noem of South Dakota speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C., Gage Skidmore

Experts on the wealth-hoarding strategies and subterfuges of the world's superrich are weighing in this week on why "billionaires love South Dakota" after a bombshell report revealed that the Republican-led state is a leading global destination for plutocratic tax cheats.

One of the biggest revelations in the Pandora Papers—a gargantuan cache of nearly 12 million documents revealing the hidden wealth and secret dealings of hundreds of the world's wealthiest people, published Sunday by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ)—is just how much of a fortune-magnet South Dakota has become.

Drawn by low taxes and some of the nation's most generous trust laws, "shady billionaires from around the world are going to South Dakota," said Chuck Collins, author of The Wealth Hoarders: How Billionaires Pay Millions to Hide Trillions, and co-editor of Inequality.org at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS).

As a result, the Mount Rushmore State "now rivals Switzerland, Panama, the Cayman Islands, and other famous tax havens as a premier venue for the international rich seeking to protect their assets from local taxes or the authorities," The Guardian reports.

Writing for Common Dreams Monday, Collins further explained:

Findings suggest that South Dakota has sheltered billions in wealth linked to wealthy individuals previously accused of serious financial crimes and labor violations. Two examples: Brazilian orange juice baron Horst Happel was fined $88 million in 2016 for underpaying his workers. In 2017, he moved substantial wealth to a trust in South Dakota. Carlos Morales Troncoso was the former vice president of the Dominican Republic. He ran a sugar company called Central Romana... that was accused of human rights violations. He set up trusts for his daughters in the Bahamas that were moved, after his death, to South Dakota.

Vehicles including granter-attained annuity trusts (GRATs) and so-called "dynasty trusts"—through which wealth can be sequestered for generations, even centuries—attract the über-rich to South Dakota by design.

Suzanne Garment, author of Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics, wrote for NBC News Tuesday that "spurred by economic need," South Dakota has become "a leader in abolishing the rule against perpetuities—the old doctrine that limits the lifespan of a trust. One version of the rule says a trust must vest—that is, it must distribute its assets—within a stated amount of time."

"But not in South Dakota," she continued. "In South Dakota today, a trust can last, well, forever. The state couples this permissive regime with strict secrecy. As opposed to records in states like New York, court documents relating to South Dakota trusts are permanently private: Even the existence of such a trust is not public."

"As a result, it is virtually impossible to discover who has established a South Dakota trust, who benefits from it, or whether legal challenges to it have been filed," Garment added.

Collins is calling on Congress to address the issue.

"Lawmakers should act at the federal level to shut down or discourage the formation of dynasty trusts and GRATs for the purposes of tax avoidance and dynastic succession," he said. "Actions could include the passage of a federal 'rule against perpetuities,' banning certain trust arrangements, and taxing income and wealth in trusts."

South Dakota isn't the only place in the United States where the rich are hiding their treasures. Other U.S. states named in the Pandora Papers include Delaware, Florida, Nevada, and Texas.

"The world is going to be looking at us differently after the Pandora Papers," said Collins. "They're going to see that the United States is the weak link now in the system of global financial transparency."

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