WASHINGTON — When the U.S. Defense Department announced an obscure California company had won a lucrative military contract, no one mentioned any plans for a Caribbean outpost — a tropical shell the company quickly created that allowed it to duck millions of dollars in taxes and deflect U.S. lawsuits. It is legal, at least for now. Contractors large and small have been heading offshore to shield piles of taxpayer dollars, according to an Associated Press investigation, but irate lawmakers are thundering that they will put an end to it. Almost a decade ago, a few months after winning the deal that has totaled more than US$2 billion (euro1.3 billion), Combat Support Associates established its subsidiary in the Cayman Islands, a British territory and tax haven. The subsidiary, CSA Ltd., now employs about 2,000 American citizens in Kuwait, where they support U.S. forces moving in and out of Iraq. Yet as a foreign corporation doing work outside the United States, CSA Ltd. does not pay pension and medical care taxes for these workers. Also, company officials maintain the subsidiary is outside the jurisdiction of U.S. courts, so federal labor rules and anti-discrimination laws do not apply either. In fact, there’s scant evidence that CSA Ltd. exists — at least physically. There is no listed office address or phone number in the Cayman Islands. Records show the corporation is registered with Close Brothers, an investment house that serves as its shallow footprint in the Caymans. Close Brothers operates out of a five-story, blue-windowed office building across the street from the docks used by cruise ships visiting this island paradise.
There’s no sign of CSA Ltd., however. “We can’t make any comments in regards to our clients,” Close Brothers director Roger Priaulx said by telephone. Back in the U.S., the House of Representatives passed tax legislation a few weeks ago that would treat foreign subsidiaries of U.S. government contractors as American employers. That means they would have to pay the taxes that finance prension and medical care programs. The Senate is now considering the legislation. “Companies that avoid this responsibility undermine the country,” says John Kerry, the Democratic chairman of the Senate subcommittee on social security, pensions and family policy. “If everybody avoided their responsibility, where would we be?” The Joint Committee on Taxation estimates shutting the employment tax loophole would bring in about US$846 million (euro548.2 million) in revenue over 10 years. That figure could be higher, lawmakers say, since it is unclear how widespread use of the opening is. “People are constantly looking for ways to jilt the system,” says Rep. Brad Ellsworth, a Democrat and one of the authors of the measure. “Where there’s smoke there could be fire, and you go investigate that.” Indeed, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has asked 15 Defense and State Department contractors for information about any foreign entities they may have in tax-friendly countries. The request followed a meeting with representatives from KBR Inc., which had more than US$6 billion (euro3.8 billion) in government contracts in 2006 alone. According to the committee, KBR has two subsidiaries in the Cayman Islands that are used to reduce the company’s tax payments. The panel is trying to determine how much these contractors earn, how much they pay their U.S. workers holding overseas jobs and how much in taxes goes unpaid.